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February 2004

Vote of Confidence

A Calgary-based technology company could be a big winner inside U.S. polling booths this year as the market for electronic voting equipment heats up.

Enfocom International Corp., under contract to a Texas-based company, has created computer software and designed equipment allowing voters to simply register their choice by touching the screen, and then automatically tabulate results.

The company -- founded in 1999 by president Herb Fensury, chairman Trevor Jones and Jeffrey Chen, chief technology officer -- now has a long-term development contract with Advanced Voting Systems, Inc., one of the top five U.S. election vendors.

"There's a huge market out there and we are at the leading edge," says Fensury.

"There's so much old stuff that has to be moved away."

In the U.S., the electronic voting industry is set to boom as the punch card -- responsible for the infamous problems in the 2000 presidential election where some election equipment failed to perforate cards properly -- falls into history.

Following the controversy over the election results, the U.S. government offered $3.6 billion US to help update voting systems over the next few years, including new machines, voter education and improving accessibility.

That funding has spurred U.S. counties, which can administer more than a dozen votes annually on everything from presidential elections to school bond issues, to start upgrading their equipment.

It's a huge opportunity -- and a stark contrast from Canada, company officials say.

"Americans love to vote -- they vote for everything, you cannot imagine," says Jones.

The trio met seven years ago in Calgary at Computing Devices Canada Ltd., before the defence contractor was bought out by U.S. based General Dynamics Corp. in 1997.

Jones and Fensury had just relocated to Calgary from Ottawa. Chen, who came to Canada from China in 1990 as a visiting scholar at the University of Calgary, was an independent contractor.

All three worked on commercial projects, which included electronic voting and telehealth initiatives, which were eventually divested by the company.

The move was a sign for the trio to venture out on their own. The new business, affectionately referred to as their "Millennium Project," started with no contracts or projects. The timing was also tough -- the technology sector was just starting into a major downturn. Four years later, the success surprises even them.

Revenues are expected to be around $3 million in 2004, Fensury says.

The company has doubled in size every year to a staff of 24 this year "and it just keeps growing," he adds.

The company has developed other products, such as software for bug tracking and golf tournament management, and late last year was selected as successful bidder for software upgrades at the Calgary Airport.

But high-tech voting remains its single largest project.

Thanks to a contact from their previous jobs, Enfocom officials first received the offer from Advanced Voting Systems to help update its equipment in early 2001.

Advanced, formerly Shoup Voting Solutions, has been in the election business for over a century in the United States, designing the first mechanical lever voting machine.

Enfocom was to review the software for an electronic touch-screen system, which needed to meet strict federal certifications for function and security.

"They came to us with the software

. . . they wanted an assessment of what they had," says Jones. "We had to basically tell them, 'Nothing.'"

In March 2001, Enfocom took over the software and reworked it in time for a July deadline, but the system needed a complete overhaul before it could actually work in an election, Fensury says.

That led to a long-term development contract. Enfocom also offers support services at elections where its equipment is used.

For its part, Advanced says it's pleased with the outcome, calling Enfocom a good supplier -- despite the distance between Calgary and Frisco, Texas.

"That is a factor and it's a negative for them to be in a foreign country," says chief executive Howard T. Van Pelt, "but we've doing business for two and a half years and it seems to be going relatively well."

At the same time, Enfocom has continued to develop complimentary software such as results gathering and voter registration to replace the paper lists. The company is also expanding its markets. Officials recently returned from a two-week trial in the U.K., where they said they were well received.

"Everywhere but our backyard," says Fensury.

"When we approached Elections Canada at the very beginning about the possibility, they looked at it and said 'Our election cost is a pencil and a paper -- how many of those pencils do I have to replace to buy one of those units?'

"It just makes no economic sense."


Calgary Herald article by Lisa Schmidt published on February 2, 2004

 

 

 

 

 

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